Gorton's Position a Relic,
by Doug Stuart, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, August 28, 1999
Late last month, Sen. Slade Gorton climbed into the bully pulpit of the U.S. Senate to tell a fairy tale. He claimed that retiring the four Lower Snake River dams would be an "unmitigated disaster and economic nightmare."
Using selected data from preliminary reports, the senator spoke only for barging companies, corporate farmers and industries. He did not mention the money paid by Northwest taxpayers and electricity ratepayers to maintain the lethal, costly dams. He carefully neglected to mention the losses already suffered by fishing communities, Native American tribes, sport and commercial fishermen.
The senator suggests that only radical environmentalists support partial removal of the dams. Oh really? What about the Taxpayers for Common Sense, a watchdog group that has spotlighted the Snake dams' waste and called for their removal?
What about the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association, a respected business organization? What about Emerald Public Utility District?
Calling those groups "radical" tells us more about the senator's position than it does about those he attacks.
Gorton argues that through "adaptive management" we can ". . . preserve endangered salmon and our valuable hydro system." Should we forget the past 20 years of costly techno-fixes that have brought us to this 11th-hour for salmon, after $3 billion worth of adaptive management? Should we really discount the majority of scientists who now say unequivocally that removing the lower Snake dams is essential to save salmon? Must we continue throwing good money after bad?
I know, I know; trucking, barging and fish hatcheries are in the senator's story, and he's sticking to it.
It may be that the senator is putting up so much smoke simply because he is worried that the truth about the four lower Snake dams is now leaking out.
The senator claims, ". . . the chance of salmon recovery is only 64 percent if all four lower Snake River dams are removed, as against 53 percent by continuing to transport smolts around the dams -- a difference that is barely statistically significant." The truth is Snake dam removal is the only scenario that achieves every recovery standard for Snake spring and summer chinook. It also recovers Fall chinook with 99 percent odds.
He tells us, "The four dams on the lower Snake River are part of our life, heritage, and culture."
The truth is the last of these dams was completed just 24 years ago. The dams have already destroyed livelihoods and culture in the fishing industry, with family-wage jobs dropping from 60,000 in 1988 to 38,000 today. The same dams have nearly wiped out the heritage and culture of Native American tribes who have depended on the salmon for thousands of years. Surely the jobs and cultures that Gorton seeks to maintain are not only those that require public subsidy to support.
Public money spent in 1996 to support the artificial lower Snake waterway (including fish mitigation costs) was about $90 million, not counting the $9.3 million spent in '93 and '97 to dredge the shipping channel between Pasco and Lewiston. Snake ports cite a benefit of some $35 million to shippers. So, we pay out $90 million per year to save $35 million?
I cannot imagine Gorton or any other fiscal conservative tolerating such waste. We should all be angry about subsidizing a handful of jobs, at the expense of 20,000 others in the fishing industry -- and the imminent loss of all Snake River salmon, which historically make up a full 50 percent of all the spring/summer chinook and steelhead in the entire Columbia basin.
The reports Gorton uses in his comments tell another story about jobs. Removing the four dams creates an economic boom in the short term, with 10,000 to 13,600 new jobs. In the long term, new recreation, fishing and transportation jobs replace virtually all the jobs eliminated in subsidized industries. All fairy tales aside, it's becoming increasingly clear that we save money, restore lost jobs and recover salmon by partially removing four dams on the lower Snake. That's four dams out of nearly 400 in the entire Columbia basin.
Gorton, in his staunch defense of dams no matter the cost, risks a dangerous parallel: He may have much in common with them. If the senator cannot change, he will be marked along with the extra Snake River dams as relics of a different time and a different way of thinking about balance in our world.
Both the senator and the dams have ceased to serve the broad, common good and now apparently serve to benefit only a select few. It's certainly time to retire the dams; is it also time to retire the senator?
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